The banking system in China is a mystery to be revelled at. According to a book on China banking that I have the big 4 banks (Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial, Agricultural and Construction) have only 1600 customers per branch on average. Most branches that I've seen have somewhere between 5 and 100 staff so if you assume an average of 20 per branch that's 80 customers per employee.
So, you might wonder when you're 53 rd in the queue for a teller and 3 out of 5 windows are closed, what the hell do all of these bank staff do?
Possibly they're out creating ingenious banking products. I did talk to Bank of China about credit cards and they explained that they have two varieties:
1) an RMB based card that can only be used in China for which you had to pay a 20000 RMB deposit, then you could spend money as a normal credit card up to the preset limit which may, if you're very good, be over 20000 RMB
2) an RMB based card that can only be used abroad but not in China. This didn't have a deposit but you could only spend money that you have previously deposited in the account.
Yes, I know option 2 is a debit card, not a credit card, but they kept denying this when I pushed the point.
So, these are of no use then and it's hard to imagine anyone wanting one.
Savers are allegedly still predominantly stuffing money under mattresses rather than into banks, people tend to borrow money from relatives rather than banks (and my own experience is that banks don't want to lend money to you anyway) so, what do all these people do?
I had thought that today would be a good day to go to the bank (lots of people are still off work from the holidays) and indeed the queue was very short. As I'm about to pay for my apartment fit-out I've transferred money from the UK to China and need to convert it to RMB.
Normally you can convert USD 10,000 but today, I was told, only USD 1,000. Why? Because today is 双休日 (the weekend). But it's not the weekend, it's Thursday" just got a blank look. The answer to the next question: "When can I change USD 10,000 was", of course, 星期日(Sunday).
OK, I can handle the fact this is part of the bizarre weekend swapping arrangement (the public holiday is only 3 days long (1st, 2nd and 3rd) but they make it a full 7 by swapping weekend days around the holiday with working days so a lot of people will be off 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th but will work 30th September and 8th October to compensate for the two lost weekdays.
What I can't quite get my head round is the fact that what I was asking for was for a value in GBP in the computer be reduced, and a value in RMB be increased. No cash was harmed in the making of this transaction. So why at the "weekend" would you only be able to convert 1/10th of the amount you could do this coming Sunday?
I think the lack of understanding by the bank staff as to just how irritating the slow queues, form filling, manual processes and arbitrary rules truly are would be addressed if they realised that I can transfer money from the UK to Singapore and convert it from one currency to another from the comfort of my office. I guess when you're accustomed to half of your customers queueing up to deposit or withdraw huge bags of cash you just accept that each transaction could take 20 minutes.